Get a career in finance

Published by Ruth Cornish on 17 July 2014.
Last updated on 17 July 2014


Finance is not just for those who are good at numbers. I began my HR career in graduate recruitment and development while working for an accountancy firm in the City.

It was the late-80s when the whole profession was undergoing a transformation and firms were realising that clients wanted more than an able risk-adverse auditor. They wanted people who could think creatively, give sound business advice and who were fun to work with.

This meant people with very different personalities. Thus, many quiet introvert mathematicians were turned away in favour of those who were warm, outgoing and engaging and could develop good client relationships.'s chief financial officer (CFO) Andy Botha explains: "It's a bit of a myth that you need to be good at maths. In reality, while you need to be numerate, the key skill is to understand what the numbers mean and explain that to others."

Professional ethics

These days, the CFO has a big role to play. Professional ethics are very much on the agenda – especially in the City – and corporate governance is critical to ensure the business is both well run and well regarded externally. Often the CFO will be a key player in the business and the rewards will be similar if not higher than the chief executive.

Gaining an accountancy qualification has been long regarded as a sensible decision for anyone who wants to have a career in business. More than four-fifths (84%) of FTSE 100 companies have a chartered accountant on their board and 51% of chief executives in FTSE 100 companies have strong financial backgrounds, with half of those being chartered accountants.

There are a number of ways to gain an accountancy qualification and by far the best route is to earn while you learn - so study with the support of an employer while you gain practical experience.

Getting a good (not necessarily relevant) degree can help (ideally a 2:1) but many firms will take you at the age of 18 and you can study as an accountancy technician (AAT), which gives you exemptions towards further study. This is also a qualification that someone who is older may consider as an entry point.

Chartered accountancy (ACA) - often seen as the crème de la crème of the accountancy qualifications – suits those that obtained good A-level grades relatively easily, as you need to pass all your exams first time.

People can also choose to become a certified accountant (ACCA), which is more common in industry, or a management accountant (CIMA). People may take a role into the City or industry immediately after they qualify or study taxation (ATI) and specialise.


I asked Olivia Harris, finance director for the Dolphin Square Foundation in London, what makes a good accountant: "In my world, good accountants are artists. We work with the creative ideas people to develop something good and use our financial acumen to identify mistakes and pitfalls before they happen."

Botha adds: "Knowing when to dive into the detail and when to keep things at a higher level is important."

All the accountants I spoke to emphasised that it is not just about the numbers. Christopher Peters, head of finance at British jewellery brand Monica Vinader, says: "When I first started, I thought it would be 90% numbers but that was never the case. Words are as important, whether it's writing reports, pulling together financial procedures or interpreting figures so that non- accountants understand what is going on and why."

When I recruit senior financiers, integrity, diligence, humility as well as determination and being able to understand and complement the company's culture are key qualities that I look for. Someone who is as collaborative as they are challenging and who can set their own direction while actively listening to the needs of all key stakeholders is also important.

An accountancy qualification can be very portable and open many doors or ways of working. You will always be able to fall back on it and should you decide to work part-time or for yourself and set your own business up, it will be invaluable.

Harris adds: "I've worked full-time and part-time as a freelancer and now I work flexibly as a finance director. It's been a great career choice for me and I am still learning new things."

Ruth Cornish is an HR consultant with more than 25 years' experience.


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